We can all agree, 2020 is South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho’s year. Since winning the Palme d’Or (2019), the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival (CFF), Parasite has continued on a winning streak — at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA, for Best Foreign Language Film), the Golden Globe Awards (for Best Foreign Language Film) and the Academy Award (for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film).
Before Parasite, Bong has been honing his directing chops in a few projects — 2003’s crime film Memories of Murder, action film Snowpiercer in 2013 and Netflix’s limited adventure series Okja in 2017. Although those didn’t quite reach the heights that Parasite has, they were still impressive. MOM was based on a true story about South Korea’s first serial killer case in the ’80s; Snowpiercer was spearheaded by Hollywood stars Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton; and Okja was nominated for seven awards at the CFF after its release.
That said, it mustn’t be forgotten that Bong is only one of the many talented filmmakers in South Korea. There’s Yeon Sang-Ho (Train to Busan) and Lee Chang-Dong (Burning), to name but a couple. If Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite whets your cinematic appetite for more, we have a few more suggestions for you.
Taegukgi: The brotherhood of war
Taegukgi is about two brothers, Lee Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-Gun) and Lee Jin-seok (Won-Bin), suffering the consequences of the 1950 Korean War. After the North invaded the South, the brothers were drafted into the South Korean military. Tae, however, protected Seok from going to war by selflessly volunteering for all the precarious missions in the force. This also paved the way for Tae to become a sergeant and earned him a military medal (Taeguk Cordon of the Order of Military Merit), which entitled them to return home.
Unfortunately, the South Korean militia killed Tae’s wife for being a “Communist”. This incident incited Tae to defect to the North and separate from his brother. In a bid to get Tae back, Seok followed suit. This ultimately created a tense situation: the North, thinking Seok is a South Korean spy, wants to kill him; the South, thinking Seok belonged to the North, wants him dead as well.
Directed by: Kang Je-Gyu
Nameless Gangsters: Rules of Time
Martin Scorsese may have an armoury of organised crime films to his name, but South Korea isn’t slacking. And one of its best has to be 2012’s Nameless Gangsters. The movie, which starred Choi Min-Sik (Lucy) and Ha Jung-Woo, was even praised by Times as “a movie Scorsese would be proud of”.
Sik plays Busan crime lord Choi Ik-Hyun, whose business involves embezzlement, extortion, assault and kidnapping. This makes him a wanted man by a government that is ramping up efforts to clamp down organised crimes.
To remove himself from suspicion, he decides to hand over his “business” to rival mobster Choi Hyung-Bae (Ha Jung-Woo). Hyun’s past, however, catches up with him when the prosecutors trace two murders back to him. To avoid going to prison, Hyun betrays Bae by framing him for all his crimes. But just when Hyun thinks he’s got off scott free, Bae reappears.
Directed by: Yoon Jong-Bin
Hanja: Taxi Driver
Hanja: Taxi Driver centres on cabby Kim Man-Seob (Song Kang-Ho), who gets inadvertently involved in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising after driving a German journalist Jürgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann) to ground zero to cover the incident. Without Seob’s help, Hinzpeter could not have produced the real-time news reports that exposed President Chun Doo-Hwan’s atrocities and allowed South Koreans to overthrow his military regime.
Fun fact: After President Park Chung-Hee’s assassination, Hwan wrestled control of the government and implemented martial law. University students participated in 1980’s Democratic Uprising, which resulted in more than 600 of them being beaten, raped and shot by government troops.
Directed by: Jang Hoon
1987: When the day comes
From one uprising to another, 1987: When the Day Comes talks about the June Democratic Uprising in Korea. The murder of a student, Park Jong-Chul, triggered this revolt as government authorities attempted to cover up his death by cremating his body to destroy evidence.
According to reports, former President Chun Doo-Hwan ordered Chul to be tortured during an interrogation after he participated in a movement that stood up to the government’s oppressive regime. Hwan claims he did this as a means to eradicate communist activity in the country, when he has in fact overstepped his presidential powers. Before the incident came to light, the authorities conspired to conceal the truth from the prosecutors, the families and the public.
Directed by: Jang Joon-Hwan
The closest South Korean films got to the Palme d’Or award, before Parasite, was with psychological thriller film Burning. In 2018, the movie was nominated for the award at the CFF but received the International Federation of Film Critics’ Prize — which acknowledges the quality of foreign films — instead.
Burning, based on Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s book The Elephant Vanishes, follows the relationship between three individuals: Ben (Steven Yeun), Lee Jong-Su (Yoo Ah-In) and Shin Hae-Mi (Jeon Jong-Seo). First glance, the premise seems to revolve about a typical love triangle between the trio. Su and Mi developed feelings for each other; Su gets jealous after Mi meets Ben, and Ben develops feelings for Mi in return. That’s not it though.
If there’s one thing we see in Burning, it is that people are capable of doing anything for love. From pleasuring oneself in the room of the object, to stalking, to kidnapping one’s object from the love rival, to committing murder. What can we say? Love is crazy?
Directed by: Lee Chang-Dong